By Dr Victoria McCollum, Researcher & Educator: Cinematic Arts, Ulster University, Magee (Derry)
Widespread social interest in the supernatural, mystical, and magical is alive and well today. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a booster for supernatural belief, especially witchcraft and magic. A challenging and uncertain present, coupled to an unknown, scary future has sent us in droves to seek the divinatory prowess of mediums and fortune-tellers. And easier than ever before, one can book a fall-equinox ritual on Airbnb, sign up for subscription witch boxes offering the equivalent of Hello Fresh for magic-making, buy aura cleanses on Etsy, and tarot, dried herbs and crystals at Urban Outfitters. Although western European interest in the supernatural and occult has been on the rise since the 1970s, it is certainly having a moment, particularly on TikTok (where hashtag #WitchTok has 20.5 billion views).
Witchcraft today is big business, especially in the wellness industry. The craft I’m referring to here is that of modern self-identifying witches who use magic for good, not the perceived practices of historic witches who were accused of using magic to harm. Think less of the hook-nosed, broom-riding, pointy-hat-wearing, cackling witches of yore, and more of the hip, feminist, millennials with slick websites and soothing advice on manifesting your dreams. It doesn’t take a giant cognitive leap to understand why witchcraft has cast a spell on the wellness industry. After all, witches have been renowned for healing since the 13th century (a compelling myth), and trolled for their looks for half a millennium (see: the history of art) as both monstrous hags and beautiful enchantresses. Either way, they’ve been painted (both literally and metaphorically) as corrupters of masculine health, sanity and good order. Yes, women are more readily linked to witchcraft than men, but of the 50,000 executed witches in Europe, a fifth were actually male. And by that, I mean bookish, less ideally masculine men, known for their ‘sinful’ desires, social impotence and association with ‘dysfunctional’ women. Men threatened accepted gender norms too and thus were also subject to being violently weeded out of society by their peers, neighbours and family members. Patriarchy and its surrogates (sexism, misogyny, machismo, and so on), which hurt us all, were the seed-bed of witchcraft accusations. Nonetheless, by the mid-17th century, in imagery, literature and drama, witches came in two forms: women who castrate and destroy via their ugliness, or emasculate and corrupt via their beauty. The bottom line is, women couldn’t be trusted – because, you know, ageing women, and / or sexually liberated women evoke hellfire, disgust and flames of passion. It’s no coincidence that the term ‘glamour’ itself found its roots in 18th century Scotland, as a means to describe enchantment, magic. It’s little wonder why makeup doyenne Estée Lauder wrote of the cosmetics empire she created, “this is the story of a bewitchment. I was irrevocably bewitched by the power to create beauty.”
It’s also worth noting that cosmetics have been viewed as a kind of black magic (a form of deception) since the 18th century, mainly by feeble men who were afraid of being duped into marrying a woman who wasn’t as good looking as they thought. This is, indeed, ironic, since men at the time often sported long luscious locks, clean-shaven porcelain-painted complexions, tiny eyebrow wigs and rouge tinted cheeks (see any painting of King Billy for reference). One decidedly pathetic letter written to The Spectator in 1711 (a bastion of Whiggish, enlightened politeness and arbiter of gentleman(y) English taste at the time), which is strikingly similar to serious complaints still made today, gripes about the many traumatised ‘gentlemen’ who were subject to great “injury” on encountering their wives’s true (un-painted) face after marriage. 300+ years later, the nasty lad meme, “always take her swimming on the first date” is going viral – there are now full Reddit threads of sneaky ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots of lads’ dates with their ‘horrifying’ ‘natural’ faces. In 2022, the online Incel (involuntary celibate) community, now a terrorist threat in the UK, US and Canada, is leading the charge against the use of cosmetics by the “hyper-sexualized, mythological she-demons” who refuse to sleep with them, by digging up the well-worn tropes of an ancient misogyny, violently and systematically coercing women to conform. The point is, witch-hunting in the west never stopped (in fact, pious folk were still accusing their neighbours of witchcraft up until the mid 20th century in Ireland). Today, this same dynamic process, whereby a section of society actively attempts to maintain dominance over women (and men), who are rarely passively compliant, has simply moved online. Because, with popular feminism comes popular misogyny. As one might suspect, men are more likely to viciously troll people online than women (this is linked to a strong sense of self-interest), yet women can be misogynist trolls too, as can men be the victim of online hate (men are purposefully humiliated and physically threatened on social media more often than women). Our culture at large has generated such a rigid, gendered view of violence and victimisation, in a society created and controlled by powerful men. The reality of the witch trials is that stigmatising, victimising and murdering so called witches was often collaborative enterprise between men and women. Accusations against women were very often made by women, who were involved at every stage of the prosecution process. Although, it should be noted that suspected witches were tortured by men, were condemned under laws written by men, in courts run by men, and in front of (in they were lucky) male juries. Complicit women so often add nuance and complexity to society’s horrors (see: Ghislaine Maxwell). There are too many noosed necks, charred bodies and drowned souls due to the virtuous fragility afforded to wealthy white women. The point here is that age, angst, religious fervour, politics, cultural crisis, good old familial rivalries, and other interpersonal tensions, added fuel to the fire of the witch craze that persecuted the powerless, from Salem to County Antrim.
Of course, we know that in other communities around the world today, especially in India, Africa, the Pacific and Latin America, more traditional forms of witch-hunting (offline) are still a grim reality of 21st-century life, in which young men take on the role of witch-hunters as a way to earn prestige by cleansing undesirables and enforcing social mores in their communities. Beatings and banishments run into the millions each and every year, indicating a complex and distressing smorgasbord of societal and religious conditions and problems. This violent vigilantism, of which women (and often their children) are the key targets, is largely put down to the penchant of Western evangelising efforts to cast out the devil, not unlike the witch-hunters of yesteryear, in which peak competition for Christian consumers in Europe led to the terrible death of 400,000 suspected witches. After all, there’s nothing like a ‘good’ hanging to promote a confessional brands’ commitment and power. The point is, that in an era where the ugly reality of violent misogyny is systematic, endemic and normalised, “we have reached peak witch.” Today, an unprecedented amount of women (and men) are reclaiming the (modern pagan) witch figure, identifying with the millions of victims of bigotry and hatred associated with the (historical) witch, in an attempt to seek shelter from, and resist, the patriarchal power that is woven into the fabric of our everyday. After all, modern paganism has been focused on the female experience and empowerment since the early 20th century.
Witchcraft has cast a spell on society because the symbol of the witch, of power and persecution, offers collective catharsis – a way to summon power when plagued by patriarchy, a social system in which we’re all victims (granted, with varying degrees of suffering). Interest in the supernatural tends to wax as instability rises, and trust in establishment ideas plummets. This is similar to the reason why the horror film, a genre in which the supernatural reigns supreme, booms every time society crumbles. It is no coincidence that Universal Classic Monsters shambled onto our screens during the Great Depression in the 1930s, or that George A. Romero’s zombies started scraping at the windows during the anti-war and Civil Rights movements in the late 1960s. Nor is it a coincidence that the sinister clown became the monstrous tentpole that many film studios relied on during the Trump-Era. Just as monsters (such as the witch) so often serve as a means of confronting national and social trauma and inviting questions about what it means to be human, so too does our belief in the supernatural offer an opportunity to gain a sense of control in a world that seems to be spiralling beyond our grasp. “When did everybody become a witch?,” ponders the New York Times, “real witches are roaming among us, and they’re seemingly everywhere.” The old, dark power, it seems, “the choice to worship something other than patriarchy’s gods,” to reject and read backward the narratives of the dominant culture, is alive and well.
Close to home, the largest witchcraft festival in the world, Witchfest International, was recently held in Ireland. On the other side of the border, Northern Ireland witches recently convened in Belfast, with the Dublin Witch Coven, to advocate for the bodily autonomy for women, trans men and non-binary people in Ulster. This, of course, makes much sense, considering the “frothing cabal of anti-abortion reactionaries known as the DUP,” writes Penny, where “grinning ghoulishly from the high windows of power,” alongside an army of “fundamentalist christian pearl-clutchers,” whose ‘pro-life’ stance rarely extends to include the rights of refugee lives. It’s no coincidence that in 1970s Italy, pro-choice feminists took to the streets with banners declaring ‘Tremate, tremate, le streghe son tornate’ (‘tremble, tremble, the witches have returned’) in response to attempts to tame rebel female bodies.
It is no wonder that neo-paganism, a means of connecting with the supernatural and the sacred (often through magical rites and rituals), yet without the burden of dogma and religious creed, is bringing much solace to a society afflicted with pandemic fatigue, great inequality, rising authoritarianism, rampant misinformation, not to mention the tsunami of hate being directed toward already vulnerable communities. This is especially true for those keen on shedding institutionalised and prejudicial belief systems, in place of a non-authoritarian, nature-based, egalitarian, culturally-inclusive system of values and practices. There’s a good reason why modern witchcraft is so popular amongst LGBTQ+ communities and people of colour, as an uplifting gateway to wisdom and self-empowerment. After all, the figure of the witch serves as a lightning rod for sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. “The pandemic turned me into a witch,” writes Italian-Canadian Catholic immigrant Zomparelli, “witchcraft forces me to take note of where I am, what I want, and where I want to go.” Yes, witches have historically gotten a bad rap as sinister outliers, yet in the face of the violent, misogynistic backlash that can greet it – is a form of activism. This is the reason why powerful women are so often cast as witches, why feminist activists have dressed as witches at protests for over half a century.
We all know by now that misogyny and violence against women is the epidemic flowing beneath the pandemic, especially here in Northern Ireland. In a recent article in The Guardian, McKay writes “Northern Ireland was well described as an armed patriarchy during the Troubles, but while the guns have long since been decommissioned, the mindsets of the patriarchs have not. NI is the only region in the UK and Ireland that has no strategy to tackle gender-based violence, sharing the highest rate of domestic murder in Europe (with Romania). One only has to look at the appalling torrent of hateful abuse levelled at Minister of Justice Naomi Long every time she speaks, to see that misogyny and sexism still ‘enchants’ Northern Ireland.
Why have we not yet reckoned with particular facets of our past, especially our own story of murder, of hysteria, and of how the ‘witch craze’ (that claimed over 400,000 lives in Europe) played out on our own shores? Eight women and one man from Islandmagee and the surrounding areas were found guilty of witchcraft at Carrickfergus Assizes, County Antrim’s criminal court, in 1711. Yet, every time, there’s a mere mention of the Islandmagee ‘witches’, some powerful (male) voice gripes about it being “anti-God” and a “shrine to paganism.”
What happened at Islandmagee 300 years ago has never been the subject of any museum collection, oral history or folklore project. Not one commemorative plaque, sign or stone marks the memory of these people, who were the vulnerable targets of a ‘good’, God-fearing, patriarchal society determined to preserve its way of life and belief system at any cost. Surely we should be encouraged to explore this neglected Irish social and cultural history and deepen our understanding about the witch trials on our doorstep. Surely exploring the past would help us to understand our patriarchal present and take responsibility for shaping a Northern Ireland in which prejudice claims less victims. The good news here is that anyone can be a witch—it’s an inclusive movement!
Follow me on Twitter @Vic_McC
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